While the government-mandated COVID-19 lockdown had a devastating economic impact, South Africa's economy already faced significant structural challenges prior to the pandemic. A ballooning sovereign debt burden, dysfunctional state-owned entities (SOE) and the corrosive impact of corruption and fraud within both the public and private sectors have curtailed South Africa's growth during a period when the rest of the world has prospered.
What the country needs now is bold, decisive and ethical leadership to guide us through these turbulent times and onto a path towards inclusive growth.
It is a monumental undertaking, but speakers at a recent Investec webinar about Women in the Public Sector, hosted as part of Investec's Women Behind the Mask series, believe that keeping women at the heart of this process will strengthen the country's recovery.
Panelist Tshepiso Moahloli, the Deputy Director-General at the National Treasury, believes that including women as part of the collective response will deliver diversity in perspectives regarding how we address these myriad challenges.
“Women look through a different lens when they consider how to address challenges, and they already play a pivotal role in society,” adds Moahloli. “It is, therefore, encouraging that the government's economic recovery plans include various growth-enhancing initiatives and programmes that place women at the forefront, rather than an afterthought.”
Makoena Mabusela, Head of Client Origination in Specialized Finance at Investec Bank, echoes this sentiment.
“As women increase their reach and influence in the public sector, it will be crucial to keep female leaders at the heart of this inclusive growth process, especially in the light of the disruption caused by Covid-19.”
Lerato Mataboge, the Deputy Director-General at the Department of Trade Industry and Competition, affirmed the depth and breadth of government-led programmes and incentives that are targeted at women. “However, society at large still tends to treat female empowerment as a tick-box exercise.”
While this has lowered barriers to entry for women in the workplace, with the public sector ahead of the curve in terms of gender-based transformation, women face various other challenges.
“From my perspective, we've got the most fantastic and the most transformative recruitment processes,” states Mataboge. “The problem in the public sector, broadly speaking, is that we don't have strategies to retain our female talent because the entrenched system doesn't necessarily encourage women to stay.”
According to Mataboge, the system does not offer supportive mechanisms that take into account the responsibilities of womanhood. “Women must, therefore, build a village around them outside of the workplace to effectively execute their job role. This support is vital because we compete in a space where expectations on women are much higher. And those of us who are mothers to young children also need to balance this responsibility with our work commitments and the time spent away from our families, but we never get that right. We just do the best we can.”
Consequently, Mataboge believes that many women leave the public service due to this lack of adequate support and the resultant inability to achieve and maintain an acceptable work-life balance.
Moahloli adds that the female talent that does remain often fails to climb the organisational ladder to reach leadership positions because they are less confident in their abilities than men and they are less assertive, too. “Less qualified but confident males often get promoted ahead of more suitable female candidates because we often don't believe we're ready.”
Lerato Mashinini, the Head of Investor Relations at Eskom qualifies this statement by highlighting the high concentration of women in middle management positions. “Women tend to get stuck at this level, which is why I believe it is incumbent on women in senior positions, especially at board and Exco level, to identify females in the organisation with potential and back them.”
“The key to realising this type of female empowerment requires women in leadership positions to sponsor and mentor women within their organisation, which is what many males already receive in the workplace,” adds Moahloli.
While addressing gender inequality starts with tackling these issues around female representation, especially in senior leadership positions, and narrowing the gender pay gap, the panellists agree that every organisations, including those in the public sector, need to go a step further.
In this regard, Mataboge believes that to meaningfully address the reality of women in South Africa and the feminisation of poverty, organisations must consider the impact that every action and decision has on all women.
It is a sentiment echoed by Mashinini. As one of the major structural risks to the local economy, Mashinini says Eskom is acutely aware of how load shedding impacts South Africa as a whole, and women-owned businesses in particular.
“Losing electricity for four hours a day, which is half the working day, means businesses cannot generate income. That is why the Eskom board and management are focused on stabilising the system and developing it to make it more reliable and predictable. When we reach that point, we can start to guarantee supply, which is when the SOE will no longer impede growth in the country.”
“This is where the private and the public sectors must collaborate to come up with solutions because this is a problem that South Africa has face for a long time and it's now magnified by the impact of Covid-19,” adds Mabusela.
Endemic corruption has a similar effect, robbing society of the resources it needs to stimulate growth and prosperity.
Moahloli affirms corruption's corrosive impact across government, the private sector and within society. “The major issue is that we are not dealing with this issue decisively and there are no consequences for the perpetrators. This erodes trust in government and dents the credibility of organisations that fail to act.”
While Moahloli affirms that there are procurement rules and regulations, clear processes and prescript laws in place, there are people, both inside and outside organisations, that manipulate the system.
This was most evident in how emergency procurement processes for PPE were manipulated to enrich individuals and businesses, instead of serving the vulnerable and poor in our society, many of whom are women in the healthcare sector working on the frontline of the pandemic response, or those caring for households through the crisis.
“When money earmarked for supporting the poor and vulnerable in society is recklessly squandered through corruption, there must be consequences. Without redress, corruption will continue to impact all of us, specifically the women in this country,” states Mabusela.
“Corruption is a real issue that we need to deal with for ourselves and for the sake of future generations,” concludes Moahloli.